Thursday, August 19, 2010

Is Rational Discourse Even Possible?

This afternoon Michael Totten and I met the head of Jerusalem's water company, who told of some of the challenges of giving service in some of the Arab sections of town. The reason we went to meet him is that he has devised an interesting way to surmount some of the problems, a solution you'll never ever find reported in any media outlet. I'll let Michael tell the tale, but part of the solution is to work closely with the local Palestinian figures. Then we went to one of the neighborhoods and watched a meeting of the water boss, some of his staff (Arabs and Jews), some local officials, and some local non-official power-brokers (all Arabs, of course. The meeting was in three languages). After that meeting the staff took us on a short tour of the area, and showed us where they're laying sewage lines, and how the cooperation is happening, in spite of the fact that at least some of the participants in the meeting we'd just been in could have been saying they were unaware of the matter.

Is rational discussion even possible when people can't even agree upon dry facts such as is someone laying pipes or not?

Also this afternoon I had a brief spat with one of our more vocal lefty activists. The fellow was bandying around the appellate "neocon", so I sent him a short message:
Use of the moniker neocon is proof of sloppy rhetoric and intellectual laziness. It's also often a euphemism for Jew-hatred.
You'd think an intelligent and educated person might pause for a moment, or at least explain that while he's aware of the various precedents of tarring ideological adversaries with shorthand designation that don't actually mean anything, his use actually is serious and meaningful. Alas, no, and this is what our discussion looked like:
(He): In this case it is not a moniker, but a description of an ideology
(Me): Think so? What's neo, and what's con about it, for starters?
(He): Allow me to introduce you to Google. Now leave me alone. Ludicrous.
I'm not sure I understand how being introduced to Google is supposed to offer me an answer to my comments, but that's the point: If this fellow and I can't even agree on the legitimate usage of a loaded term, why expect that a roomful of Jews and Arabs discussing water projects in Jerusalem will agree on what's happening? And if that can't happen, how does anyone expect Jerusalem can be amicably divided in a way that will ensure peace comity and brotherhood?


Anonymous said...

the exchange reminds me of a certain Didi, if it's not him, than he must be less unique than he tries to imply.

I am confused on neocon
- wasn't it before it morphed into a term of abuse something Norman Podhoretz might have called himself?
Not to be misunderstood: gay as used by Somerset Maugham is very not the same as gay used these days by Andrew Sullivan

never mind the "leave me alone" that is "their" meant to be haughty sounding way of admitting they've been cornered. (that at least applied to the non-fit for polite life who used to hang out at Fake Ibrahim's)


Sérgio said...

I think rational discourse is an extremely difficult art. First of all, we all have emotional reactions to certain facts, terms and associations. As we usually can´t read minds and motivations, it is hard to figure out whether someone is genuinely ignorant about some established fact, is willingly ignorant or just mendacious for provocation purposes.

Then, there´s the inevitable differences of background, education, culture, knowledge and the problem of pride. Everybody would like to think he´s right and has all the relevant information about the issues at stake. It takes the effort of self-criticism and self-reflection to recognize our terrible limitations and lack of knowledge, even of familiar things, and the ever-present temptation of self-delusion. This can be painful or boring. And the world is very complicated, life is short, and nobody can know all the information (not even the relevant ones, that can be huge!)

And humans are probably the most complicated things that ever existed; with many desires, moods and conflicts. Imagine then a bunch of such entities living in complex societies which depend on a high degree of cooperation, trust and specialized skills!

Then there are the differences in style, and the way people take criticism, from sarcasm to honest and well-meaning ones, varies widely and is a source of misunderstanding.

I think one of the naivetés of the Enlightement was the belief that with a modicum of education and good will, people would eventually get the tools (logic, concepts, basic universal knowledge, etc) to solve problems by engaging in rational discussion. The aim is noble and it still hard to think what else could be better, but the obstacles are much harder than supposed.

For instance, what about the perversions of the intellect, as
mentioned by Elhanan Yakira´s book? We have this naive and unwarranted expectation that our interlocutor will always have the same interest and concern for truth, consistency, memory, etc, and abide by the canons of rational discourse!

And, with mass media and the internet, the amount of noise being produced by pseudo-experts is immense, of which this very rant of mine is a perfect example.

So, end of rant. :)

Anonymous said...


beware, if you succumb to that world view one day you'll wake up and have become an agnostic ;-)

but seriously, reading you reminded me that I realized today that the old method of bribing states into becoming allies or attacking one's foes as the Byzantines did, doesn't work any longer today because the amount needed to bribe a democracy is too huge compared to what it costs to buy the short or long term loyalty of a war lord. Even a big war lord will be much more affordable than any western style state today - maybe Iceland is the one exception.

this wisdom I sucked out of this conversation when after all the very comprimed history Edward Luttwak finally gets around to telling what the US should do to make all problems vanish into thin air.


NormanF said...

Ya'acov's experience illustrates why peace with the Arabs won't happen in our lifetime.

If they can't agree on nuts-and-bolts civic affairs work, which isn't a politically controversial subject anywhere, how will the Jews and the Arabs ever agree on the issues that truly divide them?

And I think the divide is too wide and to deep to be bridged today.

Rob said...
This comment has been removed by the author.